Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has recently been trying to mend some fences in Washington — particularly with liberal Democrats. Speaking at the progressive Center for American Progress last month, he put it bluntly: "It's vital to understand how important it is for me that Israel remain an issue of bipartisan consensus in the United States."
Unconditional support for Israeli policies used to be the norm in Washington from both parties. But no more. New polling by the Brookings Institution shows how deep the partisan divide has become.
Asked about the current outbreak of violence in the region, a plurality of Democrats, 37%, blamed continued Israeli occupation and the expansion of Jewish settlements; 35% blamed the absence of serious peace talks. Even more telling: 49% of Democrats in the poll recommended imposing economic sanctions or taking other serious action in response to Israel's continued settlement building.
As for Republicans, 40% blamed Palestinian extremists for the current spate of violence.
The reality is that Israel has the upper hand in this situation, and that's evident in the casualty counts: over 100 Palestinians killed and 10,000 wounded since Oct. 1, compared with 19 Israelis killed and 165 wounded.
In the West Bank, Israel conducts violent raids in hospitals, restricts access to water and controls Palestinian freedom of movement. Israel also turns a blind eye to violence against Palestinians by Israeli settlers, who now number nearly half a million. Gaza, which the international community still considers occupied territory because of how Israel controls its borders, is in the midst of a serious humanitarian crisis.
Liberals in the United States are becoming more aware of these problems and of Israel's record more generally. Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, maintains a list of more than 50 laws that discriminate against non-Jews in Israel, including laws that allow the state to confiscate Palestinian land for public purposes and laws that deny state funding to institutions that teach about the Nakba, the 1948 exodus from Israel when perhaps 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes. Israel is currently considering a bill that would require representatives of NGOs that receive foreign money to wear special badges to identify them in the Israeli parliament. The government has arrested Palestinian citizens of Israel for posts they write on Facebook, demolished homes and stripped social services from relatives of violent attackers.
These are policies that should outrage progressives, so it's no wonder Netanyahu is losing traction with Democrats. A Gallup poll in February 2015 found that the percentage of Democrats sympathizing with Israel more than Palestinians had fallen 10 points, to 48%, over the previous year.
Israel's billions of dollars in military aid are still sacrosanct in Washington — but the cracks in the consensus are showing.
In July, when the Palestinian village of Susiya was under immediate threat of being razed by Israeli authorities, Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Menlo Park) and 10 other Democratic representatives urged Secretary of State John F. Kerry to intervene. In June, 19 representatives sent Kerry a letter asking him to take up the issue of Palestinian children in Israel's military detention system.
American labor unions, a backbone of the Democratic Party, might be the next group to take up Palestinian rights. In September, the United Electrical workers became the first national union to endorse a boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Last month, the Connecticut branch of the AFL-CIO voted to encourage the national AFL-CIO to endorse the boycott movement as well.
As opinions shift among the Democratic base, U.S. officials increasingly are willing to risk criticizing Israel more bluntly. Last month, Kerry visited Israel hoping to initiate steps that might calm the current violence. Netanyahu had the gall to demand international recognition of Israel's settlement blocs in the West Bank before he'd dial back the military crackdown.
The White House's response was, for once, an assertive no.
This new firmness suggests the administration knows how many Democrats find Israeli policies unacceptable. As Israel continues to hurtle down an anti-democratic path, its chances of regaining bipartisan support in the U.S. fade in the distance.
Rebecca Vilkomerson is executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace.